I had coached the same general group of kids for a few seasons. They all knew each other well and knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This season, we had a new kid join in who had clearly played soccer before. “Andrea” wasn’t exceptionally better than any of the other kids but she could give any of them a run for their money. All the kids in the class still got along great until a few weeks into the season…
“John” and “Andrew” were best friends and pretty much the two “best” soccer players in the class. To make things fair for everyone else, I usually put them on opposite teams when it came to scrimmage. They always competed well against each other and never had a problem with the other one winning. It was sportsmanship at its finest as far as I could tell. However, a few weeks into the new season John and Andrew got paired up on the same team going up against Andrea. It was all fun, until I blew the whistle and John and Andrew’s team had lost, a lot to nothing. Of course I wasn’t keeping strict score for either team but they were a competitive group of kids and always kept pretty good track of the score on their own. After the game, Andrew handed me his jersey with the rest of the kids and was just as happy as usual. John, on the other hand, I was surprised to see still had the jersey on well after the game was over.
I walked up to him as the other kids were collecting the cones and saw tears welling up in his eyes. “John, what’s wrong” I asked, thinking maybe he got hurt and I had missed it. He took a second before he looked up and yelled, “it’s not fair! We lost! I didn’t get a turn.” I was a little confused because he had lost plenty of times in the many season’s he’d been playing. “It’s okay,” I reassured him, “we’ll still play next week and I’m sure you’ll score lots of goals then. “No it’s not fair, I don’t want to play anymore.”
I couldn’t understand why this time was so different. I tried to reassure him some more but he wasn’t having any of it. Fast-forward to the next week and John was ready to play soccer again. He had largely forgotten about the incident it appeared and was ready to play. That was, until the scrimmage was over, and neither team had scored a goal. Again, after the scrimmage, John was distraught that he hadn’t won. I asked him again what was wrong and again he told me he lost and that it wasn’t fair.
I was still confused about what made this time any different than the other times he had lost but I was prepared. “But you tied” I told him. “It’s not fair” he said insistently. This time I was ready though. “Why isn’t it fair John?” I was starting to think there wasn’t an actual reason. “Because we lost” he said keeping his reasoning in a circle. “But what if you had won, then the other team loses then is it not fair to them?” I asked him. “But I don’t want them to win.”
Finally we got to the root of the problem. John was fine with losing before because it usually meant that Andrew won. They were best friends and hugged and high-fived and were happy win or lose. But when John was on Andrew’s team and they both lost, Andrew saw no reason he should be happy the other team won. It took another week for John to really understand that it was okay to lose. I had to stress that he was still having fun and just as importantly, so were the kids on the other team.
The concept of winning and losing is hard to get across to kids. The best way I’ve found to do it, is to first really understand what their underlying meaning of winning and losing for them is. Some kids really want to win, some really don’t want to lose, some have learned that winning is good and some just have an inherent drive. It may be a cliché to say that every kids is unique but it’s true, every situation is different. The most important thing though, is to make sure the kid learns for themselves that winning and losing are both okay. It isn’t as easy as telling them. They have to experience it both ways. The thing you can do, is explain to them the best you can so that when they do win or lose, they make the choice for themselves to be a gracious winner and a gracious loser.